Exploring Translation in Language Learning

by Malgorzata Smentek (Author)
©2017 Monographs 340 Pages
Series: Gdańsk Studies in Language, Volume 12


This book explores the functions and potential of translation in language learning. It demonstrates that despite its changing fortunes in the history of foreign language teaching, translation has a prominent part to play both in the L2 classroom and beyond. As a cognitive process and a quintessential communicative activity, it not only boosts the learner’s bilingual and bicultural competence, but also promotes and accelerates the development of the skill of translation. Considering its diverse educational assets as well as the results of a research survey presented in this book, the author argues that translation practice should become an integral element of contemporary foreign language education.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 Translation in Foreign Language Teaching: A Historical Perspective
  • 1.1 Introductory remarks
  • 1.2 From Antiquity to the 19th century
  • 1.3 The Grammar Translation Method
  • 1.4 The Reform Movement
  • 1.5 The Direct Method
  • 1.6 The Audiolingual Method and Contrastive Analysis
  • 1.7 The Cognitive Code Approach
  • 1.8 The “Designer” Methods
  • 1.8.1 Community Language Learning
  • 1.8.2 Suggestopedia
  • 1.8.3 The Silent Way
  • 1.8.4 The Total Physical Response Method
  • 1.8.5 A concluding comment on the “designer” solutions
  • 1.9 The communicative era
  • 1.9.1 The Natural Approach
  • 1.9.2 The origins of the communicative trend in Europe
  • 1.9.3 Communicative Language Teaching
  • 1.10 Concluding remarks
  • Chapter 2 The Advanced Learner
  • 2.1 Introductory remarks
  • 2.2 A profile of the advanced learner
  • 2.2.1 The CEFR description of the advanced learner
  • 2.2.2 The advanced learner’s needs and expectations
  • 2.3 Obstacles on the way to L2 mastery
  • 2.3.1 Obstacles from within: Motivational issues
  • 2.3.2 Obstacles from outside: Fashions and trends within ELT
  • “Action-orientation” and focus on fluency
  • Focus on pair work
  • Accuracy and correctness – out of focus
  • 2.3.3 The “global” obstacle: The new role of English and its implications for ELT
  • 2.3.4 ELT’s utilitarian objectives
  • 2.4 The challenge of the advanced level
  • 2.4.1 The advanced learner: A fluent fossil
  • 2.4.2 The advanced learner: A master of strategies
  • 2.5 Concluding suggestions
  • Chapter 3 Translation: Selected Theoretical Issues
  • 3.1 Defining translation
  • 3.1.1 The etymology of the term translation
  • 3.1.2 Selected definitions
  • 3.1.3 Translation: Process versus product
  • 3.1.4 Translation versus interpreting
  • Consecutive and simultaneous interpreting
  • Community interpreting
  • 3.2 Equivalence in translation
  • 3.2.1 Equivalence in translation: Selected approaches
  • Equivalence in difference
  • Formal correspondence v. textual equivalence
  • Formal v. dynamic equivalence
  • Communicative v. semantic translation
  • Frameworks of equivalence
  • 3.2.2 Non-equivalence, translation loss and untranslatability
  • 3.3 The translation process
  • 3.4 The translator
  • 3.5 Concluding remarks
  • Chapter 4 Translation in FLT: The Controversy
  • 4.1 Introductory remarks
  • 4.2 Translation in language education: An end and a means
  • 4.3 Translation in the L2 classroom: Arguments against
  • 4.4 In defence of translation: Addressing the criticism
  • 4.4.1 The Grammar Translation stigma
  • 4.4.2 The monolingual orthodoxy
  • 4.4.3 The interference phobia
  • 4.5 Translation as a language teaching resource
  • 4.5.1 Translation for contrastive analysis
  • 4.5.2 Translation as a means of conveying meaning
  • 4.5.3 Translation in teaching cognitive models and figurative language
  • 4.5.4 Translation in teaching conventional syntagms
  • 4.5.5 Translation in teaching grammar
  • 4.6 Translation as a learning strategy
  • 4.7 Translation as a testing technique
  • 4.8 Concluding remarks
  • Chapter 5 Towards an Integrated Approach to Translation
  • 5.1 Introductory remarks
  • 5.2 Translation as part of the bilingualisation process
  • 5.3 Translation as a fifth skill
  • 5.4 Communicative translation in the advanced L2 classroom
  • 5.5 The assets of translation practice for the advanced learner
  • 5.6 Translation and autonomous lifelong learning
  • 5.7 Concluding remarks
  • Chapter 6 Current Views on Translation: The Expert and Learner Perspectives
  • 6.1 Introductory remarks
  • 6.2 Translation in FLT: The Council of Europe perspective
  • 6.3 Current views on translation in Polish ELT
  • 6.4 Translation in language learning: The learner’s perspective
  • 6.4.1 Introductory remarks
  • 6.4.2 The aims of the research
  • 6.4.3 The pilot study
  • 6.4.4 The research tool
  • 6.4.5 The respondents
  • 6.4.6 Data collection
  • 6.4.7 Data interpretation
  • Respondent profile
  • The use of L1 as a means of EFL learning and teaching at advanced levels
  • The use of translation in EFL learning and teaching at advanced levels
  • 6.5 Concluding remarks
  • Chapter 7 Practical Implications for the Advanced L2 Classroom
  • 7.1 Introductory remarks
  • 7.2 The source material
  • 7.3 Translation tasks
  • 7.4 Translation-based tasks for ESP
  • 7.5 Audiovisuals and the new media: Breaking task monotony
  • 7.6 Some further considerations
  • 7.7 Concluding remarks
  • Conclusions
  • References
  • Appendix The Questionnaire Survey
  • Subject Index
  • Name Index
  • Series index

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A number of people have helped me in various ways in the process of this study. First and foremost, I would like to express my deepest gratitude to Professor Danuta Stanulewicz, the Editor of Gdańsk Studies in Language, for her invaluable guidance, assistance, encouragement and personal involvement throughout the entire course of this research project. I am also very grateful to Tadeusz Z. Wolański for proofreading the final manuscript. My special thanks are also due to all the respondents who kindly agreed to participate in the research survey described in this study.

On a more personal note, my most sincere gratitude goes to Anna Smentek, without whose unfailing support and sacrifice this work would never have been possible in the first place. Finally, I wish to express my warmest thanks to Nina, Maksymilian and Piotr Lewandowski for their continuous inspiration, patience and remarkable ability to put things into the right perspective.

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Emerging from an intrinsic human need to understand one another, translation has always played a significant and natural part in communication across languages and cultures. As Steiner (1998: 49) notes, “[t]he affair at Babel confirmed and externalized the never-ending task […] – it did not initiate it”. Over the last decades, however, this need has grown at an unprecedented rate, elevating translation to the status of an indispensable means of communication and opening the door to further explorations within this discipline.

Despite its long tradition in the history of human cross-linguistic interaction, translation still remains a very complex phenomenon − one which can be investigated from a myriad of viewpoints and can function at various levels of language. Its interpretations, depending on the adopted perspective, can indeed be so diverse that any attempts to provide a precise definition of the concept of translation are bound to end in failure.

While translation is most often associated with enabling interaction across linguistic and cultural boundaries, we should not forget that − although in recent decades on an incomparably lesser scale − for centuries, translation has also had another significant mission, i.e. a didactic one, as a means of teaching and learning foreign languages. Interestingly, however, while translation per se has received unanimous approval as an art, a craft and – more contemporarily − as an independent academic discipline, i.e. translation studies, its role and functions in the context of foreign language teaching (FLT), and English Language Teaching (ELT) in particular, have notoriously inspired conflicting opinions and to this day remain one of the greatest controversies within this discipline.

It is predominantly from this controversial pedagogical perspective that translation will be explored in the present study. Drawing on the reported and observed strengths, weaknesses and needs characteristic of the advanced-level student, as well as on the virtues and vices of the currently favoured trends in language teaching, the proposal endeavours to renounce some of the deeply-rooted prejudices concerning the use of translation in FLT. In other words, one of the main objectives of this study is to contribute to renewed thinking about the place and role of translation in language learning. The study also attempts to demonstrate that translation, understood as both a resource and a skill, is ← 15 | 16 → particularly important at the advanced stages of second language (L2)1 education, when the learner’s L2 competence finally allows him/her to appreciate the complexity and nuances of meaning interwoven in the language.

Indeed, the advanced learner is the central figure of this work. This largely results from my realisation that relatively little attention is devoted to the teaching of students representing the extreme levels on the language development continuum, as if language learning was predominantly concerned with intermediate secondary school learners. While researchers are beginning to explore the issues connected with some of the previously overlooked target groups of learners, such as younger school-children, when it comes to the other extreme − the advanced L2 user − there still remains a certain void (cf. Wysocka 2003: 130).

In the course of the study, an argument is put forward for supplementing conventional L2 courses and programmes at the advanced levels with activities in semi-professional oral and written translation. While being aware that advocating the use of translation in the modern classroom is, as Deller and Rinvolucri (2002: 93) have wittily put it, swimming “against the tide of […] years of Western, Direct Method orthodoxy”, the approach adopted here rests on the firm conviction that it is, at the same time, swimming with the flow of common sense.

This work consists of seven chapters. The first one − “Translation in Foreign Language Teaching: A Historical Perspective” − attempts to provide an overview of the fate of translation in foreign language education over the centuries. Throughout the chapter, the reader finds out that the over 2000-year-long history of language learning was indeed, as Kelly (1969: 171) argues, “dominated by translation” − the only two periods from which it was largely absent were the Middle Ages and the 20th century. The chapter concludes with the suggestion that translation, as a once successful language teaching and learning technique which has for so long been stigmatised, should be reconsidered by FLT professionals as an extremely creative, useful and effective resource.

As its title − “The Advanced Learner” − suggests, Chapter Two focuses entirely on today’s L2 learners at the highest proficiency levels. Having presented the silhouette of the advanced learner, we proceed with a brief analysis of such learners’ needs and objectives in learning English. It is also in this context that the chapter examines the adequacy and effectiveness of selected aspects of the prevailing trends in ELT methodology and applied classroom procedures. Finally, it goes ← 16 | 17 → on to suggest some solutions which might be introduced into the L2 classroom in order to aid the advanced learner on his/her path towards achieving superior-level L2 proficiency.

Chapter Three, entitled “Translation: Selected Theoretical Issues”, attempts to provide some theoretical grounding for the forthcoming discussion of translation as an applied discipline. In doing so, it presents some key notions which lie at the heart of translation studies, such as definitions of translation and translation equivalence, a description of the model of the translation process and a short discussion on the role of the translator. It also takes a look at the problems of untranslatability and translation loss.

Chapter Four − “Translation in FLT: The Controversy” − starts with an analysis of the reasons for the current neglect of the L2 student’s knowledge of his/her native language (L1) and, in particular, for the disregard of the role of translation in the process of modern language education. The chapter is primarily concerned with the suggestion that it is the L2 teacher’s responsibility to guide the learners in building on their prior knowledge and experience of their mother tongue and native culture. It is suggested that translation, similarly to the learner’s L1, is neither the teacher’s nor the student’s enemy which they should try to defeat at all costs. The discussion which follows attempts to draw attention to the fact that the characteristic features of carefully designed and approached translation activities do not at all disagree with the ideas of the communicative trend in language teaching. On the contrary, as in the case of L2 learners at the highest proficiency levels, translation practice does not only unlock the potential for acquiring new vocabulary and grammar, but also involves a considerable amount of communicative practice by means of integrating the skills of reading, speaking, listening and writing, in this way contributing to the overall linguistic development of the L2 learner.

Chapter Five, entitled “Towards an Integrated Approach to Translation”, presents another hypothesis about the role of translation in contemporary language learning and examines some further reasons why it should be incorporated into the L2 class. This chapter postulates that translation should no longer be perceived as the Cinderella of foreign language teaching or a skill which is only appropriate for the training of professional translators. Instead, it should be recognised as an extremely necessary − if not inevitable − skill in the multilingual and multicultural contexts of today’s world, additionally beneficial to all advanced L2 users on their path of bilingual and bicultural development, also as part of their autonomous lifelong learning.

Chapter Six − “Current Views on Translation: The Expert and Learner Perspectives” − aims to briefly review some of the ideas on translation which are expressed ← 17 | 18 → by selected ELT professionals and the Council of Europe – the institution setting the standards for today’s discipline of foreign language education in Europe. The expert perspective is then confronted with that of a group of 200 Polish advanced-level EFL learners who took part in a research project presented in the present volume.

Drawing on the conclusions obtained in the course of the research and several years of classroom experience as well as on a number of ideas inspired by selected existing subject literature, Chapter Seven, entitled “Practical Implications for the Advanced L2 Classroom”, endeavours to provide some practical suggestions on how translation can be integrated into regular foreign language classroom practice at the highest proficiency levels.

To conclude, the goal of the present work is to make a heuristic and hopefully convincing proposal for the regular incorporation of a wide spectrum of translation activities into the advanced foreign language classroom and beyond.

1 Prior to any further discussion, it must be clarified that certain terms which reappear throughout the study − in particular second language and foreign language (L2) − are used in free variation unless indicated otherwise. The same applies to mother tongue, native language and first language (L1), and the verbs acquire and learn.

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Chapter One Translation in Foreign Language Teaching: A Historical Perspective

Nobody really knows what is new or what is old in present-day language teaching procedures. There has been a vague feeling that modern experts have spent their time in discovering what other men have forgotten; […] much that is being claimed as revolutionary in this century is merely a rethinking and renaming of early ideas and procedures.

(Kelly 1969: ix)

1.1 Introductory remarks

Today’s foreign language learners face a real challenge when it comes to selecting the right language school, method or coursebook. They can opt to learn the language through traditional face-to-face instruction, live online training in virtual classrooms or by means of interactive online self-study, to mention but a few. Alternatively, they can decide to study the language abroad through total immersion in the target language and culture, or at home, aided by quick-fix solutions, such as SITA. Bombarded with promises of “success-guaranteed” methods, like the Callan Method: “Learn English in a quarter of the time!”2, the learner has every right to feel confused. The multitude of offers is truly bewildering, and − as we well know − the greater the spectrum of choices, the greater the dilemma. Therefore, the final decision as to which path to follow remains a complex one, and not only for the learner, but for all the parties concerned.

There is, however, no shortcut to success in language learning since all contexts, learners and teachers, as well as the relationships between them, are unique (Brown 2000: 14). No matter what method or approach is in vogue or, as frequently happens to be the case owing to political and economic reasons, is officially advocated, the teacher must adjust to the age, level, situation, needs and cultural profile of the learner, to mention but a few concerns. Centuries of foreign language teaching show that when a method is applied inflexibly, according to ← 19 | 20 → some set techniques and procedures to be used in all kinds of situations, it not only becomes inefficient (Rivers 1968: 13) but also retards and disrupts the educational development of the student.

A bird’s eye view of the history of foreign language teaching shows that – like in other walks of life, also here – fashions come and go. Yet there are some universals which are resistant to changing whims and fads. As Kelly (1969: 363) interestingly notes, “the total corpus of ideas accessible to language teachers has not changed basically in 2000 years”. That is why what has proved effective in a given method should be taken up and enhanced by its successors so that the best solutions of the past could serve the present generations.

It will be postulated throughout this work that one of such universals in the field of foreign language learning is translation. Yet, despite its long-established role as the cross-linguistic technique par excellence, the function and place of translation in language education has been the subject of a long-standing controversy, one which has permanently divided the discipline of foreign language teaching.

Although it is a natural phenomenon for people exposed in one way or another to a foreign language to compare it to any other language(s) with which they are familiar, and thus − in the process of L2 learning − build on their existing knowledge and skills, translation has frequently been questioned and discredited by linguists and language teachers alike. Consequently, in many pedagogical contexts, it has fallen out of favour and become banished from the L2 classroom. In others, it has never really ceased to exist; however, sometimes it has been totally misused and abused.

Therefore, as we commence our discussion of the role and significance of the process of translation in foreign language learning, the first chapter takes us on a journey in time to explore the use and functions of translation from a historical perspective. Familiarity with at least some basic facts from the history of translation in language teaching appears to be essential for a proper understanding of the full spectrum of ideas concerning it.

At this point, however, it should be clearly stated that this work does not aspire to survey the over 2000-year-long history of foreign language education. To believe that one could possibly do so in the space of one chapter would be to believe in the impossible. The purpose is only to trace back the importance and functions of the mother tongue and especially translation as resources in the study of foreign languages, in particular the modern ones. While doing so, we shall attempt to take a closer look at the ways in which consecutive approaches and methods have affected the role of translation in the context of foreign ← 20 | 21 → language teaching. For this reason, the methods and approaches mentioned here are dealt with primarily from one perspective, whereas of some there is no mention. It can only be hoped that this overview will manage to bring into light some of the intricacies of the field.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (August)
Mediation Bilingual development L1 use / native language use / mother tongue use Advanced L2 learners Foreign Language Teaching Cross-linguistic communication
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 340 pp., 13 b/w ill., 44 b/w tables.

Biographical notes

Malgorzata Smentek (Author)

Małgorzata Smentek is Assistant Professor at the Institute of English and American Studies, University of Gdańsk, Poland. Her research interests focus on language acquisition, bilingualism, cross-linguistic influence, ELT theory and practice as well as on current language education policies.


Title: Exploring Translation in Language Learning
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